Tag Archives: nature of lying

Lying with literally true statements is the worst kind of lying

by Carl V Phillips

This is a reprise of points I have made here before, including in the mission statement of the blog. It was inspired by this recent post by Steven Raith in which he, a relative newcomer to the tobacco wars, describes his realization of just how often tobacco control’s lies consist of literally true statements. It is always nice to see people independently derive this observation, though I have been documenting that type of lie from “public health” (along with others) for most of two decades. Raith speculates that their use of such lies is increasing, but this does not seem to me to be the case; rather, once you become aware of the tactic, you notice it more. I will come back to the question of prevalence.

Lies include any communication that is intended to make the audience believe something the communicator knows is not true. Some lies are baldly false statements, like those that dominate POTUS’s lies. I have noted that this is a “welcome to our world” moment: Suddenly everyone found themselves trying to respond to falsehoods from the government that were so obvious that it is hard to get past just sputtering at them. This is exactly the government behavior that those of us in the tobacco wars and other drug wars have faced forever.

Lies also include many technically true statements that are clearly intended to make the audience believe something that is false. I find it useful to think of two main subcategories of these: First are statements that are the semantic equivalent of an optical illusion, which almost explicitly state the lie and trick the reader into reading in the lie. These are the statements that might cause a careful reader to react with, “I see what you did there.” An example is, “smokeless tobacco is not a safe alternative to cigarettes,” a statement that is technically true because it is vacuous (nothing is safe), but in intended to be read as “…not safer than….” Second are innuendo, where the true statement does not actually contain any version of the falsehood that it intentionally communicates, such as “smokeless tobacco contains arsenic.” The statement does not actually say “…and this makes it harmful,” but just counts on people’s scientific innumeracy to fill in “…and since arsenic is bad, anything that contains it must be bad.”

It is these innuendo lies that I personally despise the most. Not only do they seek to mislead people, but they intentionally take advantage of innumeracy that our supposedly-scientific agencies and organizations should trying to fight rather than embrace. Moreover, they tend to make that same innumeracy worse. The intended innuendo is that smokeless tobacco must be harmful because arsenic can be detected in it, but the equally clear message is that anything with any arsenic in it (i.e., vegetables and any organic matter) is harmful. This is perfect ammunition for anti-vaxxers or anti-biotech liars or all manner of anti-scientific activists.

[Random deeper dive points — please skip the next four paragraphs if you already think my posts are already too long.

There are further subcategories and cross-categories of lies, and I am not attempting anything close to a complete taxonomy. Presenting as True a claim that might be true, but is highly uncertain, is another classic tobacco control tactic. One version of this is misrepresenting a single result from a single study as a robust generalizable estimate. Of course, that is also done when there is overwhelming evidence that estimate is wrong, in which case it is simply an overt lie.

Some observers like to classify “lies of commission” versus “lies of omission”, but I find that distracting rather than useful. It roughly corresponds to the “literally false” versus “literally true” division I am emphasizing. But not quite; sometimes literally true lies involve some obvious omission of an important fact, but not always. More important, “commission” implies that other types of lies are not equally intentional acts of volition, which they are.

Not all literally false statements are lies; some are merely simplifications that are acceptable in context (“Earth is a sphere”) while a few are crafted to better communicate the practical truth than the literal truth would (a “I’m allergic to peaches” rather than “I have topical mucosal reaction which does not appear to be IgE mediated, and so is not actually an allergy, but produces the bad reaction of…”).

Not all literally false communications are statements. A question can be a lie. Or a glance. Or a lack of a glance: I had a dog who cleverly tried to lie to me about whether I had really tossed him a treat by letting it go past him without apparently knowing it; if I walked away rather than tossing him another, he would immediately turn and pick up the first one, aware of exactly where it was. More relevant, the act of citing a source in a paper can be a lie if that source is merely one piece of evidence that points toward the claim it is attached to, but is clearly not a sufficient basis for the claim.

end deeper dive]

Can something also be a lie if the person stating it actually does believe it? I would argue yes, and include other circumstances in my definition of lie for this blog. If someone has had every opportunity to learn the truth (e.g., tobacco control leaders who are confronted with the actual evidence), but they intentionally insulate themselves from it for political reasons, then their false claims (or innuendos) that contradict the truth are lies. If someone claims expertise on something that they do not really have (e.g., tobacco control’s useful idiots), but make statements as if they know what they are talking about, they are lying. Perhaps some might argue that they are only lying about their knowledge/expertise, and the statement is not itself technically a lie. But either way, they are lying. So if your layman brother says, “you should not switch to e-cigarettes — those things are worse for you than smoking”, chances are he is just a victim of propaganda, not a liar. But if @DrSJKelderMD tweets out that message, he is implicitly claiming expertise on the matter (despite also being a victim of propaganda) and that makes him a liar. (Of course, what either one of the should really be saying is “I read somewhere that…”, but that ability to accept that one’s “knowledge” is limited is beyond most people.)

Deception, not the literal truth of a statement, makes a bit of communication a lie. Some of our less insightful news media, notably including NPR News, have issued an editorial policy that they will not use the L-word to describe the claims of certain people in government because we cannot know for sure that they do not really believe the nonsense they are spouting. This is an utter fail for a couple of reasons. First, there are those I just noted: If there is clear evidence a claim is wrong, and that is available to the liar and within his ability to understand, then either he is unaware of it, making him a liar in his implicit claim he is knowledgeable about the matter, or is capable of making himself believe something he knows is not true, which is layers of liar and other pathologies of various sorts.

But there is a second, rather more important, reason why NPR et al. are wrong. It goes to the serious failure to understand the nature of knowledge that consists of putting claims in the bins {known, unknown}. If those are the categories, then everything about the material world falls into the second. This is the same error that appears in so many debates about interpreting study results — e.g., whenever you see someone (who clearly does not understand scientific knowledge) say “this is an observational study [or ‘cohort study’, or whatever] and so cannot prove causation.” No body of evidence can ever prove or let us to know (with certainty) anything about the material world. We only have degrees of confidence in a conclusion. So refusing to properly label a lie just because we do not know what is the speaker’s mind is a logic that precludes ever reporting any conclusion about anything.

So with respect to degrees of confidence that tobacco control (and “public health” more generally) statements are lies, the evidence is pretty overwhelming. They are constantly told, by people who are obviously expert, why their claims are wrong. They cannot not know. Those who genuinely cannot understand the truth are lying about being minimally competent to have an opinion on the topic.

In fairness our confidence that someone is lying should diminish as there start to be legitimate reasons someone might believe a claim. Arguably, it might also diminish if the claim is obviously wrong, but it requires serious technical expertise to understand why. But much of what “public health” claims is obviously and indisputably wrong, at a level that any undergraduate should be able to understand.

Consider especially the cases where they torture their phrasing of the lie so that their exact words are technically true. This is evidence that they actually do know the truth. Someone who asserts an obviously false statement might genuinely believe it (though still be a liar for the above reasons). Someone who carefully crafts a statement that communicates a lie, while still being able to claim that his statement does not violate the Administrative Procedures Act prohibition against false statements, is not making a mistake. Both the lie itself and the effort to keep from being sued for it are obviously intentional. That is the most evil kind of liar. There can be no question that his intent is to lie.

Of course, there is nothing novel or clever about this. Every teenager figures out how to lie with literal truths. “I got home before midnight, just like you told me to” (“…before sneaking back out”). “I was at work all evening, and did not go out partying with my friends” (“…they just dropped by at my break and we smoked weed in the parking lot”). Of course, a parent who figures out that the literal truth was really a lie is unlikely to be particularly impressed by the use of literal truth. And neither should those judging public health liars.

Finally, to Raith’s suggestion that the tendency of tobacco control to lie with literal truth seems to be increasing, I have to say no. It is, of course, impossible to really apply any precise measure to this. Which statements should we count? Every last utterance by some useful idiot, or only the more faux-authoritative statements? Who do we count as faux-authoritative? How do we weight a lie by CDC that gets reprised by a hundred idiots at local health departments versus a lie by the Truth (hahaha) Initiative that is broadcast on television? Statistics are fairly meaningless for things like this, and anyone who suggests otherwise is, well, lying. (This morning on the radio, I heard the claim that anti-semitic incidents had increased by 86% since Trump took office. Just ponder how incredibly stupid this precise statistical claim about an ill-defined and difficult-to-document collection of events is.)

That said, I think in terms of chronicling the lies of tobacco control, I am probably the best excuse for a lie-o-meter that we have. I have been carefully observing and documenting their lies and methods of lying for the course of the 21st century. My observation is that out-and-out false anti-THR lies were more common at the start of the century than they are now. But thanks to badgering by Brad Rodu, me, and a few others, the leading liars were forced to back off of those. So for a decade or more, technical truth lies have been predominant. When some novelty emerges, like they whole phenomenon of e-cigarettes or a single new junk “study”, we tend to see an increase in the literally false lies. But there is a drift back to an equilibrium where most lies are the “optical illusion” or innuendo type.

So someone who has focused only on the lies about e-cigarettes, from the time that tobacco control started lying about e-cigarettes, will probably have noticed an increase in the prevalence literal truth lies. But the mix of public health lies overall — about smoking, ETS, smokeless tobacco — has been pretty consistent. Literally true lies are the norm. Thus it is important to recognize that they are clearly worse than the literally false ones.

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